Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

Social Policy and International Development Aid

Millennium Development Goals

The U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals


One definition of social policy is the provision of social services including health care, education, housing, and social security.  Many developing countries cannot provide these basic services for a variety of reasons.  They may be coping with the effects of a severe natural disaster.  Their people may be living under the harsh conditions of war.  They also might have corrupt officials in power.

The so-called “Washington Consensus” is a high-powered group of US-led financial and political entities (including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank) that dole out developmental aid on the condition that recipient countries reform their governments according to donor standards.  One controversial reform requires these  governments to open their markets to foreign imports–potentially endangering home-grown businesses.  Another reform requires the adoption of democratic forms of governance and liberal rights (assembly, religion, free speech and press).

For the time being, let’s set aside important concerns regarding the embedded hypocrisy of the Washington Consensus stance, for indeed, the historical record shows a variety of examples in which Washington supported corrupt and illegitimate governments where it could derive some economic benefit from the instability.  Instead, let’s assume that the United States in particular is sincere in its desire to spread the freedoms its people enjoy to the developing world.

Steven Halper’s book The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the 21st Century sounds the alarm about the potential demise of freedom-enhancing developmental aid via the Washington Consensus.  China has been offering countries headed by cruel dictators developmental assistance in the form of infrastructure development and economic partnerships.  This “no strings attached” aid allows oppressive bureaucrats to continue on with business-as-usual without effecting any reforms to support democratic governance or social justice causes.  The ideological aim and influence of the Washington Consensus is thereby thwarted and undermined.

Halper paints a picture of a dystopian future in which American values are no longer respected on the world stage as the standard of social justice via participatory government [I hope the irony of this statement is apparent].  Instead, the US and its handful of democratic allies will be floating adrift, surrounded by a swelling ocean of authoritarian capitalist states.

So I’d like to pose the question: the “Beijing Consensus” has enabled roads and power plants to be built where there was nothing before.  This infrastructure has allowed many more of the common populace to seek more self-enriching educations and livelihoods than would be possible otherwise.  If the foundation of social justice through social policy provisions- satisfying basic material needs- is the first step to alleviating the ills of developing nations (you need to eat before you can vote), then what might China’s developmental strategy say about the Washington Consensus?  Is it morally correct to deprive citizens of their basic needs until the institutional structure of their government aligns with an ideological standard?

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